Don’t let that halo fool you. Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin may have mastered the art of primitivism, been a key influence in the symbolist movement and paved the way for the Synthetist style in modern art… yet this predominant painter’s road to presumably calculated artistic legend was paved with controversy.
It seems Gauguin’s art will always carry with it a story, and not the one wrought forth by a viewer’s whimsical daydream. With each Gauguin exhibition there can be heard a cry of “MYSOGYNY!”… and for incredibly valid reasons.
Gauguin’s most famous works were created whilst the artist claims to have been searching for a simpler, purer life while living in the Polynesian island of Tahiti. One must suppose “pure” is a relative term, as it is now known that during this time Gauguin acquired three native brides, aged 13, 13 and 14, whom he infected with syphilis, all the while living in a hut the artist dubbed “La Maison du Jouir.”
Did we mention that this was all after bidding adieu to (what we would call) a normal, nuclear family of a wife and five kids? Gauguin was a stock-broker before he began painting in his free time. His urge to paint led him to befriend Camille Pissarro but he apparently destroyed that relationship as well. From Alastair Smart’s article in the Telegraph:
“He’s not a seer, he’s a schemer,” one-time mentor Camille Pissarro railed, arguing that Gauguin never really lost his capitalist streak; that with his paintings of sun-soaked islands, Gauguin was just cashing in on the Parisian bourgeoisie’s fondness for all things “other.”
Gauguin also spent a nine week stint in Arles painting with then-friend Vincent Van Gogh, when he was involved in the infamous ear-shear, and there have even been claims that Gauguin was the shearer himself, but we won’t get into that here.
Regardless of his personal mishaps, Gauguin remains the first artist to achieve broad public success for primitivism – an art movement “characterized by exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts.” His unique approach to this artistic method is poignantly encapsulated by a 2012 article in the Huffington Post:
“Gauguin’s Primitivism used flat fields of acidic and unnatural color to convey stories that bridged history, myth, legend and dream. The utopias he painted expressed mystery, desire and the dark regions of psychology. This idea of making the invisible visible helped pave the way for contemporary abstraction.”
Judge for yourselves, and enjoy (or not), Paul Gauguin’s paintings from his time in Tahiti: